Misty L. Bastian, Ph.D.
Mami Wata is the pidgin English name of the spiritual force also known to Igbo-speakers as Ezenwaanyi (Queen or Chief of Women), Nnekwunwenyi (glossed by Jenkins as Honorable Woman), Ezebelamiri (Queen Who Lives in the Waters), and Nwaanyi mara mma (Jenkins glosses this as Very Beautiful Woman, but I would suggest that it might be better understood as More Than Beautiful Woman). (Jenkins, 1984: 13) Fabian notes that she is called Mamba Muntu, or Crocodile Person, in some parts of Zaire. (Fabian, 1978: 319) In West Africa more generally she is also known as the Mermaid, just as in Zaire (which is the only other African area for which we have information about Mami Wata practice) she is sometimes called sirene or madame poisson. (Szombati-Fabian and Fabian, 1976: 19) Flora Nwapa, in her novel Efuru, says that the northern Igbo people living in Oguta know the spirit's local manifestation as Uhamiri. This name is not translated, but it contains the root word mmiri, or water. By her names, then, we can infer that the images which many Africans have of this spirit are female ones, or at least, as a being personified as partially female and partially fish or reptile. Mami Wata is usually represented, both verbally and iconically, as a woman, but as a woman of a very special type.
Nwapa describes Uhamiri as "an elegant woman, very beautiful, combing her long black hair with a golden comb." (Nwapa, 1966: 146) Other descriptions emphasize the fairness of her skin, the fine texture of her hair, the serenity of her expression and the wealth displayed on her person. Like some of the earthly manifestations of the Greek gods, Mami Wata, when she chooses to display herself to human beings, can be recognized by the overabundance of her beauty and wealth. She is too attractive, too fair of skin, has overly large and brilliant eyes and excessively long tresses. Her clothes practically shine with newness and are in the latest fashion, while her jewelry blinds the eyes of observers when she decides to wear it.
As Nwapa mentions above, even her comb is made of gold. Such overabundance is a sign of the spirit's dangerous nature. Capriciously, the spirit might lend a devotee the very qualities or attributes which set her apart for ordinary human beings: great beauty, wealth, and the ability to attract good fortune, as well as a certain remoteness from stress and worry. At the same time, the spirit is easily tempted to take those attributes away from her followers, as if to add them to her own store. Mami Wata is notoriously demanding in her attentions. The person who she favors today may be forced to return those favors, or pay dearly for them, tomorrow. Since Mami Wata is one of the "wild" spiritual forces which have never been human, she has no real interest in or understanding of human feelings. Her followers may form communities, but she is not a part of them. Mami Wata deals with each follower individually, even though she has mediums and priests who attempt to make those individual fates seem less arbitrary.
What sorts of favors is Mami Wata best known to grant, and what are the afflictions which she must be coaxed out of? The spirit is especially concerned with the health and material well-being of her followers. One of the first signs that Mami Wata is interested in an individual is illness, like in many other cases of possession in Africa. This illness, often described as beginning with a listlessness and an inability to concentrate, will be resistant to cure and will grow steadily worse if the spirit is not addressed. The spirit both sends the illness and offers its palliative; there can be no complete cure. In contemporary Nigeria, Mami Wata is said to be responsible for many cases of barrenness, venereal disease, as well as headaches and a generalized form of bodily distress. The spirit is herself thought of as barren (Nwapa, 1966: 221), but she will consent to cure this affliction in her devotees. Images of babies and mothers with children are integral parts of the spirit's many shrines, all testimonies to her success in bringing children. (Jenkins, 1984: 15) However, she is believed to differentiate among her female followers on this issue. Those she chooses to transform into human approximations of herself are sent beauty and wealth but are denied children. Those who experience the "joys of motherhood" at Mami Wata's behest are less likely to know her fully and appear to be less likely to represent the spirit directly in uwa mmadu (the world of human beings).
From data which I collected in Nigeria in 1987, it seems that the Mami Wata spirit is more likely to visit venereal disease upon men. She appears to male followers as a beautiful, loose-living woman who will agree to go with them to their rooms, have sex with them, and leave them diseased or impotent. In some popular stories, the spirit will reveal herself to an especially favored man after their tryst and will demand his absolute sexual fidelity or a promise of absolute silence about what has happened between them. Should the man keep his promises to Mami Wata, she will enrich him magically, usually transforming him from a ne'er-do-well into a successful businessman. If he should fail the spirit, she can be remorseless, taking away everything she bestowed and whatever he managed to accumulate on his own, including wives and children. It is unclear whether there is a conscious connection between women's barrenness and men's venereal diseases in these stories, but the sophisticated urban-dweller in Africa is well aware of the consequences of venereal disease for women. The connection between venereal diseases and prostitution is also well known, so it should come as no surprise that exceptionally beautiful women who will have sex for money are called "mami watas" in some areas. The spirit is seen, from the above, to be barren of children and disease bearing; able to bring a wealth associated with sexuality but capable of taking away both money and potency. Her attractiveness is both a lure to a potential trap and an avenue to material good. She afflicts and offers solace to those who meet her.
Mami Wata's dual nature of afflictor and healer, bringer of fortune and bestower of misfortune, is symbolized by the two colors most associated with her devotees in West Africa. The spirit's followers usually wear red and white clothes, in recognition of her potential for both destruction and creativity. For the Igbo, red (oche obara or obala obala) is thought of as "the color of blood...with...the connotations of death, danger, power, evil and interestingly enough -- maleness." (Jenkins, 1984: 22-23) In Onitsha Igbo, the term actually could be glossed as the blood of blood (obala obala). Redness is also thought of in terms of heat, sacrifice, and defilement. (Cole, 1982: 212) This aspect of Mami Wata is associated with affliction, especially illness, her too-active, non-reproductive sexuality, and the dangerous attractiveness (the "more than beauty" of one of her praise names) she exudes. It also, as Jenkins points out, suggests a male aspect of the generally female spirit.
Men are always associated positively, in Igbo, with sacrifice, which is the quintessential male duty in ritual, and with death, through their connection to ancestral spiritual forces. Men's negative red associations have to do with warfare and the taking of blood for their individual ikenga. The meaning of Mami Wata's redness is tied to this notion of blood and maleness. As a spirit, she is able to manifest herself in uwa mmadu (the human world) in various forms, including that of a man. While in Lagos during January of 1987, I saw a set of Mami Wata paintings done by a highly respected Nigerian artist. The first painting of the set showed the Mami Wata spirit as a beautiful mermaid, combing her long hair with one hand and beckoning to the viewer with the other. This painting was done in shades of light blue, which is called ocha (white) in Igbo, and off-whites. The second painting showed an ominous male Mami Wata, painted with a great deal of black, deep reds, and reddish yellow. Salmons also records the case of an Ibibio woman follower of the spirit who has experienced Mami Wata's male aspect:
[Eka Ete Ubom] always sees the spirit in the form of a woman, but she thinks it must really be a man, for sometimes she dreams that they sleep together, and in the morning she actually feels as if she has had sexual intercourse.
(Salmons, 1977: 11)
Eka Ete Ubom's union with the spirit is barren of children but highly productive in giving her status in her community: Ubom is a priestess of Mami Wata and well-regarded as a communicator with the spirit.
The sexual ambiguity expressed in Ubom's description of her relations with the spirit is not uncommon. A young woman who discussed the spirit with me during my fieldwork replied, in answer to a question about Mami Wata's gender, that the Mami Wata spirit is not human and does not have ordinary genitalia. Nonetheless, she was certain that she could have sexual relations with the spirit -- in her own terms, "marry the thing." Images of Mami Wata often emphasize the phallic aspect of the spirit, although they are not sexually explicit. In these images, a large snake is entwined about the hips of the (female) spirit, rising up to cradle its head between her breasts. As our eyes follow the coil of the serpent towards the spirit's face, we are finally confronted with a commanding pair of dark eyes. Male sexual virility is thus strikingly coupled with a bold, assertive, and very female gaze. Neither form of sexuality is truly dominant in this image. The phallic snake draws the eye to the breasts and points the way ultimately towards the beautiful, obviously female face. This is not an image of a woman with a penis, an image which could be easily encompassed by African artists. Mami Wata is something other than female or male. As Flora Nwapa, in her children's book Mammywater, has a mother tell her daughter, Mami Wata is not a human being. In whatever form she may appear, she is a spirit. (Nwapa, 1979: 7)
It is Mami Wata's spiritual nature which is most emphasized in her love for the color white (ocha). Our discussion of Mami Wata's "redness" above brought us inevitably to a discussion of her ambiguous sexuality because of Igbo associations with that color. We could say that red symbolizes the aspect of Mami Wata which is most visible to human beings, being the closest to their own everyday experience (bodily, sexual, materially based). Through red, the spirit can be understood and contacted most directly by people engaged in the polluting and dangerous business of human life. Mami Wata's "whiteness" represents that which is most strange to humans as physical beings. The color white, for the Igbo, is associated with beauty, wealth, the ancestral forces, children and what Cole translates as "clarity, truth,visibility." (Cole, 1982: 217) I would argue that this "clarity" is very close to what Uchendu calls "transparency." (Uchendu, 1965: 17)
As a spiritual being, Mami Wata is a transparent, transcendent, non-human being. She is white while in her own element -- and that element, water, is itself considered to be white or clear in Igbo discourse. Human beings, during the course of a "good life," strive for transparency, both in relations with lineage mates and with others. The Igbo life-cycle moves between whiteness and redness, between transparency and coolness and the red heat of accumulation, productivity and reproductivity. People go from the relative transparency of birth (a transcendent moment of creation, calling for the cooperation of all forces and all worlds) to the reddened, heated opacity of middle life (when people are most involved with themselves, with accumulating wealth and producing families) and finally back to a more transparent, whitened state during old age (just prior to joining the wholly transparent world of ancestral forces; a time of redistribution). Mami Wata lives in the transparent, white world of spirits and is transparent while there. Actually manifesting herself in the world of human beings requires that she undergo a process of accumulation (of bodily elements, of opacity) and reddening (gaining "blood").
Just as she must be transformed and is made more dangerous by her excursions out of place, those human beings she takes to visit her in the too-white world of spiritual forces are also changed. After visiting Mami Wata "in the water," people return to uwa mmadu (the world of human beings) "with bone-dry clothes and beautiful, remote-looking faces." (Salmons, 1977: 8) These visitors to the spiritual realm are whitened or "clarified." They become more like the spirit -- exceedingly beautiful, wealthy, and detached from the human scene. As I will argue below, human devotees are liable to become more like ancestral spiritual forces or so-called "human spirits": a position which is not necessarily the most advantageous one for ndi mmadu (human beings).
Paxon, Szombati-Fabian and Fabian have emphasized the foreignness of Mami Wata's appearance, especially her fair skin and "European" features. Salmons, however, points out that in the Cross Rivers area of Nigeria where she did her field studies, there is a long tradition of whitening the skin with chalk and other substances "for religious purposes and for decorative and cooling effects." (Salmons, 1977: 14) To this I would add that Igbo-speaking people normally represent certain spirits as white-faced, particularly in masquerades like the well-known maiden mmuo. Ritual participants often wear chalk, particularly if they are in mourning or other dangerously heated states. This chalk helps to neutralize their "redness," enabling them to enter into normal relations with people who are not so protected. At the same time, it announces their abnormal state of (heated, polluted, dangerous) being. The whiteness of chalk thus sets its wearer apart, showing that he/she is somewhat out of place in ordinary society, and palliates that abnormality. Whiteness in Igbo society enables and warns; it has, like redness, a dual nature.
Mami Wata's "whiteness," her fair skin, may come from indigenous color categories as well as from European, colonial intrusions. It is not at all clear that she is "foreign," simply because art historical investigation traces her most recent iconic form to a particular colonial incident. I would argue that the spirit speaks to indigenous categorization as well as being an expression of the colonial and post-colonial order of things. Indeed, if she did not speak to indigenous ways of thinking, why would she be taken up by Africans so readily? The argument for Mami Wata's absolute "foreignness" is based in a notion of the complete and totalizing hegemony of western expressive forms. This is not to say that Mami Wata cannot be analyzed as an intrusive element in African popular culture; her followers now live and practice her veneration in places quite far away from West African coastal areas. If we are to comprehend how an intrusive element can be subsumed and used by the intruded-upon society, we must step beyond analysis based on hegemonic forms and move towards a more synthetic position.
Page of Original Article